Betting Is the Game
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 15, 2005

WHAT’S THE biggest sporting event of the year? The Super Bowl, the World Series, the NCAA tournament?

None of the above. It’s betting on these events, and the NCAA tournament may be even bigger than the Super Bowl, because it runs for three weeks. There is a web site, BetWWWS.com, set up to handle Internet betting, and the hotels and sports books in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Reno will be full.

And then, there are the office pools. Chances are, you’re in one yourself.

The NCAA is very nervous about the betting on college games. The fact that Rick Neuheisel won $12,123 in office pools for the 2002 and 2003 tournaments was a big factor in his being fired as head football coach at the University of Washington.

Neuheisel had the last laugh. He filed a suit and the NCAA settled for $4.5 million. He’ll never be a college head coach again – he’s currently quarterbacks coach for the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL – but somehow, I don’t think he’s concerned about that.

HISTORY IS the reason for the NCAA’s concern about betting. There were two separate scandals involving collegiate basketball, in the early ‘50s and early ‘60s, that tore the sport apart.

The first one was the one that everybody remembers, because it changed the face of college basketball. Star players on the City College of New York team which had won both the NIT and NCAA in 1950, were implicated. So were the stars of the great 1948 Kentucky team, Ralph Beard and Alex Groza, as well as another great collegian, Sherman White of Long Island University.

Of the three teams, only Kentucky has remained as a consistently top team since.

A more significant change was on the tournament level. Prior to the 1950s scandal, the NIT – which was won by Pete Newell’s USF team, featuring Don Lofgran and Rene Herrerias, in 1949 – was by far the more prestigious tournament, because it was held in Madison Square Garden in New York. That arena had for many years been host to college doubleheaders which had boosted the popularity of the sport.

But the moralists in the sport decided that cities in general and Madison Square Garden specifically had too many gamblers, which had led to the downfall of the players. So, the NCAA, played in college arenas at the time, became the major tournament. The NIT sank to the second-tier rung at which it still resides.

Ten years later, an even worse point-shaving scandal erupted. Perhaps the sporting public was more sophisticated about betting by then, but it didn’t make anywhere near the impact of the first scandal. The NCAA remained the major tournament – and, of course, the finals of the tournament are played in non-college venues now.

Interestingly, Newell feels that the increase in the legalized betting in Nevada has helped police the college game. “When the sports books see an unusual amount of money on an individual game, they’ll pull it off right away,” Newell told me in a conversation a couple of years ago, noting an example of a game that had just been played. His point was that gamblers pay players to shave points so they can make a killing by betting the other way, but if the game is not available for general betting, there won’t be a big payoff.

TWO OTHER sports have been greatly influenced by the rise in betting: horse racing and pro football.

In the ‘20s and ‘30s, horse racing was huge. There were only four really big sports at that time: baseball, college football, boxing and horse racing.

The Kentucky Derby was a big event – it still is, though to a lesser degree – and there were many big stakes races. One of the biggest has been immortalized in the recent book and movie, “Seabiscuit.”

In large part, horse racing was popular because it was possible to bet legally on the sport at the track, with the pari-mutuel windows. Most betters had a “system,” and never mind that the system usually ended up breaking them.

When the point spread was invented for betting on pro football games, horse racing was doomed. Few fans have been around horses growing up or really know much about racing, but millions of fans think they know football, so they feel confident in making bets.

No, you can’t bet at the game, but there are so many other ways, including the ubiquitous office pools. The sports books have been available for some time, and now, there’s even the Internet betting.
And I haven’t even mentioned Fantasy Football, which is another form of betting.

Television is usually given credit for the rise in popularity of pro football, but the point spread has also been a huge factor.

THE OFFICE pools for the NCAA tournament have taken the betting concept to another level because anybody can enter. A knowledge of basketball isn’t a pre-requisite for pools in which you just draw names at random.

When there’s talk of “March Madness,” it should be a reference to the betting, not the games.

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